Montreal Jazz Report #6: Masada Bring Down The House

Huge crowds push festival into the black for first time in five years.

MONTREAL — Neither rain nor music fatigue kept a record crowd from turning downtown into a massive jazz block party during the last weekend of the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

Festival organizers estimated that attendance topped last year's 1.6 million. About 225,000 people attended the free, outdoor Brazilian Carnival on July 4, making it the largest show in the event's 21-year history. More than 100,000 people bought tickets for the festival's 127 shows, generating $2.3 million Canadian; in addition, Sting's Molson Center show on July 4 generated more than $700,000. This year was the first time the 10-day festival has run a surplus since 1995.

"This was a great year for us. Hopefully, the trend will continue," Jacques Dupont, vice president of marketing for the festival, said. "Of course, when you see clouds in the sky, you worry a little bit, but it was no problem."

With music and with weather, Friday night started out with a thunderous bang. A light rain fell, which didn't seem to bother many who were sitting at outdoor cafes. Inside, the music raged and stormed.

Masada, alto saxophonist John Zorn's klezmer-meets-cutting-edge quartet featuring drummer Joey Baron, trumpeter Dave Douglas and bassist Greg Cohen, ripped through a 105-minute set at a sold-out Theatre Maisonneuve. The group's musicianship and energy level were astonishing.

"I was shocked at first but we just loved it," said Irving Davis of Long Island, N.Y., who was in town with his wife celebrating their 39th wedding anniversary. "We always heard about Montreal, so we just came up for the weekend, looked at who was playing and gave this a shot."

The Davises' night did not end with Masada. Like many others, the couple went down the street to the Spectrum club two hours later to hear Douglas' sextet. This well-oiled group worked the room's fine sound system to great advantage.

"We knew it sounded good in there; also, it's rare to have a large audience who is that quiet during the songs," Douglas said.

The group performed compositions culled mainly from its recent record, Soul on Soul. Douglas' reading of the title cut (RealAudio excerpt) was much looser than the recorded version.

Outside the Spectrum a courtyard was filled with a huge, friendly crowd grooving to P18, a French group steeped in the Afro-Cuban tradition. The General Motors stage, where P18 played twice, is the festival's biggest outdoor free venue.

"You can spend days here and just see really good free music," Keith Jennings, an accountant from New Jersey, said. "I came here the first day, had to fly back to Jersey and flew back yesterday. I hear what's happening on the big outdoor stages and go to a jam session later." Jennings was referring to the nightly post-festival event at the Wyndom Hotel.

Awards And Opportunities

On Saturday, the festival handed out three awards at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Place des Arts. Singer Dee Dee Bridgewater won the Ella Fitzgerald Award for "the range, versatility, improvisational originality and quality" of her repertoire, according to a festival statement.

From the stage, the 50-year-old singer thanked the festival.

"At first I was like, cool, I got this award, but when I got here, it hit me. To even be mentioned in the same sentence as Ella Fitzgerald is incredible. Montreal has opened so many doors for me. I really love this place."

During her set, the award-winner performed a few tunes associated with Fitzgerald: "Let's Do It" and "Surrey with the Fringe on Top."

Bassist Charlie Biddle won the Oscar Peterson Award, given to Canadian artists. Biddle, whose group was an opening act for Bridgewater, has been active on the Canadian jazz scene since 1948.

By winning the General Motors Grand Jazz Award for the best Canadian jazz ensemble playing in the outdoor venues of the festival, the Eduardo Pipman Quartet got $5,000, the opening slot at the Bridgewater concert, an invitation to play an indoor gig at next year's festival, 50 hours of recording time at a highly regarded studio and a contract with the Justin Time record label.

"I left Argentina for jazz, to be in an environment where there were more jazz opportunities," Pipman, a percussionist, said. "This award will enable us to play more gigs and get more visibility. The only way to move ahead in jazz is play, play and play."

It took some quick maneuvering to arrive at the Bridgewater show. The streets were packed with people, jugglers, mime acts, and general mayhem. Earlier in the evening, guitarist Jim Hall closed out his Invitation series at Monument National Theater with a spirited performance. For this gig, Hall's guest was saxophonist Greg Osby. From the stage, Hall dedicated "All The Things You Are," to his wife, Jane, and daughter, Debra.

Backed by the all-Canadian rhythm section of Terry Clarke and Don Thompson, Hall and Osby played a strong set, which included a light rendition of Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz." Hall played the melody line in a descending pattern while the alto saxophonist ran a beautiful, melodic ascending pattern.

Signs Of Things To Come

The success of this year's Montreal Jazz Festival is good news for Festival 2001. According to the festival's press office, plans are under way for "an avant-garde jazz series" to be held at the Museum of Contemporary Art at next year's event.

After Saturday's indoor performances, P18 were at it again at the General Motors stage. Across the way, on the other end of St. Catherine Street, a band whose name no one knew played a funky version of "Spill the Wine," from the old funk band War. People laughed, danced, drank and sang along. Odds are those folks will be back next year.